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Creature Feature: For pets, pain is what we say it is

25 May

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Family, 1E, May 25, 2011

By Rhonda Owen, Special to the Democrat-Gazette

I’ve heard that cats don’t feel pain like people do. Is that true? If it is, how can I tell if my cat is hurting?

Cats and other animals do feel pain, but they are better at masking it than we are. In the wild, showing pain makes them vulnerable, so animals have learned to hide pain as a protective measure.

However, just because an animal won’t overtly show pain doesn’t mean there aren’t signs.

“Although all animals experience pain, expression varies with age and species, as well as among individuals,” the American Animal Hospital Association says in its “Pain Management Guidelines for Dogs and Cats.”

Veterinarians focus on an animal’s behavior to assess the type and level of pain, but that can be tricky because behavioral changes may be subtle. Also, the vet needs to understand a pet’s normal behavior before he is able to identify abnormal behavior. This is where a pet owner’s observations can be invaluable, the association says.

“For humans, pain is what the patient says it is. For animals, pain is what we say it is,” veterinarian Arnold Plotnick explains in Catnip, a publication of the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University.

He says it’s also hard for veterinarians and pet owners to accurately measure an animal’s pain, especially in cats. Dogs will “vocalize” or cry out when they’re in pain, while a cat may not.

“As a general rule, cats do not demonstrate overt pain-associated behavior,” Plotnick says.

After surgery, cats often get less care for pain management — primarily because it’s hard to recognize or determine a cat’s level of pain. But a cat’s posture can provide some signs.

“A cat with a hunched posture, head hung low, eyelids half closed, sitting quietly in its cage and not seeking attention or resenting being handled is probably experiencing pain,” Plotnick says. “Cats in pain sit at the back of their cage, rather than in the front.”

In contrast, a dog in pain may be restless or agitated, or may react aggressively if touched or handled. Some dogs will act timid or needy and want more contact with people.

“Dogs may adopt an abnormal body posture in an attempt to cope with pain,” he says, explaining that a dog with abdominal pain may tense up its torso or arch its back.

The animal hospital association says there are general signs for cats and dogs that may indicate pain:

• Decreased activity or appetite. A cat may stop grooming or may not want to eat, for example.

• “Inappropriate elimination,” which in indoor cats could mean urinating beside the litter box or elsewhere in the home. If a cat begins doing this, it’s sometimes a sign of a bladder or kidney infection.

• Increased body tension or flinching when touched.

• Elevated heart rate, blood pressure or body temperature as well as rapid breathing.

The association also notes that the most overlooked cause of pain in cats has to do with muscular soreness, arthritis and degenerative joint disease.

Creature Feature appears each Wednesday in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

Creature Feature: Preventing dog bites

18 May

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Family, 1E, May 18, 2011

By Rhonda Owen, Special to the Democrat-Gazette

My 9-year-old dog looks like a little bear or a stuffed toy so when we’re out in public, it’s not unusual to hear a small child yell, “Puppy!” and dash headlong toward her.

I’m quick to step between these youngsters and Simone. While Simone doesn’t have a problem with children, she doesn’t appreciate being grabbed, screamed at and popped on the head, all things that excited kids without “dog manners” may do.

 The body-block technique came in handy recently when a girl about 3 or 4 years old rushed at Simone, shrieking and with hands outstretched. I had to block the girl three times before she settled down enough for me to explain how to approach and pet Simone. Her father, looking embarrassed, thanked me afterward.

I’m always willing to teach a child how to safely approach Simone (or any dog) but the ideal scenario is when a parent walks his child over to us and asks. Then, after getting permission, the parent talks his child through letting Simone sniff her closed hand before gently stroking or petting Simone on the shoulder, chest or side — not the head. Most dogs don’t want a stranger touching their heads.

Simone may not be thrilled by a child’s attention, but she allows it. But not all dogs will react as well. A dog that’s uncomfortable or fearful and doesn’t have what experts call “bite inhibition” may actually strike out and bite.

The American Veterinary Medical Association, which has designated May 15-20 as “National Dog Bite Prevention Week,” says children are the most common victims of dog bites. The association lists ways parents can educate kids about dog bites at

For more tips, I talked with Pamela Reid, a certified applied animal behaviorist and vice president of the Animal Behavior Center of the American Association for the Society to Prevent Cruelty to Animals. READ FULL ARTICLE

Creature Feature appears each Wednesday in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

Creature Feature: A dog’s view

11 May
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Family, 1E, May 11, 2011

By Rhonda Owen, Special to the Democrat-Gazette 

 When I’m playing ball with my dog Waldo, sometimes he’ll be standing right in front of his ball after it lands and not see it. He has to sniff around to find it. I thought dogs had better eyesight than people so this is weird. Am I wrong or does Waldo need his eyes checked?

The answer to whether dogs’ vision is better than that of humans is yes and no, experts say.

Dogs have less visual acuity, which means they don’t see details as well as we do, says veterinarian Bruce Fogle in The Dog’s Mind. However, dogs have better peripheral vision than humans, at least when it comes to detecting objects in motion.

“A typical dog has a visual acuity of 20/75, which means that a dog has to stand 20 feet away to clearly see an object that a person with normal vision sees well standing 75 feet away. The dog has to get much closer to the object than we do,” animal behaviorist Temple Grandin explains in Animals in Translation.

Stanley Coren, a psychologist and animal behavior expert, cites the same numbers as Grandin in an article in Psychology Today but also notes that dogs see more than we think they do.

 “Although the dog’s visual acuity is considerably less than that of a normal human,” he says, “a lot of information is still getting from his eyes to his brain, even though the focus is ‘soft’ and he won’t be able to make out many details.”

A dog’s vision is “like viewing the world through a fine mesh gauze, or a piece of cellophane that has been smeared with a light coat of petroleum jelly,” Coren says.READ FULL ARTICLE

Creature Feature: Thunder rolls, claws and howls

4 May

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Family, 1E, May 4, 2011

BY RHONDA OWEN, Special to the Democrat-Gazette

During storms, my cat always tries to hide. Last night when there were tornadoes, Molly escaped out the door and was gone for two hours before we found her under the deck. I was frantic and don’t want to go through that again. But I know there will be more storms. Any tips for how to handle my fraidy-cat?

Storms are nerve-wracking for everyone, including pets, but can be less so with a few preparations.

Here are some tips for safety as well as for easing a pet’s anxiety during one of Arkansas’ inevitable storms. They’re compiled from personal experience with fraidy-cats and dogs, plus information from the Humane Society of the United States (, and the National Association of Professional Pet Sitters (


Hiding when scared is a cat’s normal way of handling a threat (which is how a cat views thunder), so Molly’s behavior isn’t out of the ordinary. You can control the situation by providing her with a safe retreat, such as a crate or a hidey-hole in the area of the house your family goes during a tornado warning.

If Molly doesn’t get into a crate unless she’s going to the vet, she probably won’t have pleasant associations with it. This means that you’ll have to condition her to it when then are no storms. Put treats or a favorite toy inside and leave the door open. Let her go in and out at will.

Spray the inside of the crate with a calmative such as Feliway, which is a synthetic hormone that can lower stress. There is also a version for dogs called D.A.P. (dog-appeasing pheromone). Both are available in a spray or as plug-in diffusers.

During a recent storm, I sprayed one of my dog Simone’s scarves with D.A.P. and tied it around her neck. I also sprayed D.A.P. on my jeans because I knew she’d either be in my lap or sitting next to me while the thunder rolled. While it didn’t dispel all her anxiety, there was a noticeable calming effect.

Creature Feature: Choosing a kitten is picky business

27 Apr
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, 1E, Family section, April 27, 2011

By RHONDA OWEN, Special to the Democrat-Gazette
Your article about kitten season was interesting and made us think about adopting one. We are going to the shelter in a couple of weeks to see what’s there. We’re cat newbies. Any tips on choosing a kitten?

Congratulations! Your life is about to change, and knowing what to expect and how to prepare will help make it a delightful experience.
The first step is choosing the right kitten for you. Picking a kitten is a little trickier than choosing an adult cat because you can only guess at what personality he will develop as he grows into adulthood.
Many people choose kittens based on their appearance, but it’s more important to assess the kitten’s potential temperament. Feline behaviorist Pam Johnson-Bennett suggests ways to do this in her book, Think Like a Cat.


Creature Feature appears each Wednesday in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

Creature Feature: Help for pets up a creak

20 Apr

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, 1E, April 20, 2011

BY RHONDA OWEN, Special to the Democrat-Gazette

My dog and cat are getting older and my cat already has a little arthritis, the vet says. I take glucosamine supplements for mine. Does glucosamine help pets too?

Glucosamine as a dietary supplement has been shown to improve an arthritic pet’s mobility and soothe joints.

Although there are scientific studies supporting this, many people who give their pets supplements regularly report they are effective, and more veterinarians are recommending them.

Osteoarthritis affects the joints of cats and dogs just as it does humans. The signs that an animal may have arthritis include difficulty walking, lying down or jumping. An arthritic pet may seem to be in pain when you try to pet him or pick him up.
Glucosamine occurs naturally in humans and animals, according to pet education. com and Cartilage — connective tissue in joints between bones — contains the highest amount of glucosamine, which is necessary to keep the cartilage healthy.

“In a nutshell, cartilage consists of several different cells, one of which is chondrocytes,” says. “Chondrocytes are responsible for synthesizing new cartilage. … Glucosamine provides the building blocks to synthesize new cartilage.”

Normal, healthy animals are able to produce enough glucosamine to keep the joints working smoothly. But as an animal ages or has a joint injury, his body loses the ability to synthesize enough glucosamine. That’s when supplements are needed. READ FULL ARTICLE

Creature Feature: Of rats & dogs

13 Apr

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, 1E, April 13, 2011

RHONDA OWEN, Special to the Democrat-Gazette

My Pomeranian loves squeaky toys. Her favorite is a floppy stuffed weasel-like toy that has squeakers at both ends. She grips it in her tiny jaws of death and shakes it savagely. Faster, floppy toy. Kill. Kill.

Because Simone is a harmless-looking fluffball of a dog, her play appears disconcertingly predatory. But it’s normal, what dog behaviorists call “prey play.”

Prey play is what you see when dogs run after balls or shake their toys violently. Basically, they’re practicing for the real deal with a live animal, although you hope that never happens.
Sometimes it does.

Several weeks ago, Simone caught and shook a rat to death in my backyard. I didn’t see the actual shaking, but caught her minutes later mouthing the rat like a squeaky toy — only the rat wasn’t squeaking. Its neck and tail were broken.

Squeaky toys are cute; dead rats aren’t.

After I got over the shock of seeing my dog act like a dog, I disposed of the rat, brushed Simone’s teeth and gave her the longest bath of her life. Take that, rat germs. Kill. Kill.

Rat germs? That’s when I started worrying about what diseases Simone might have gotten from the rat. Leptospirosis (lepto) immediately came to mind because I had talked to my veterinarian about it when Simone had her annual vaccinations.

I had questioned the vet about the necessity of the leptospirosis vaccine, saying I didn’t think Simone would ever come in contact with rats or other carriers of the disease. My vet gave me a stern overthe-eyeglasses look and said, “Oh, yes, she will.”

Simone got the vaccine. Good thing. But not because she caught a rat and had it in her mouth.

Biting or being bitten by a rat isn’t the most common way to pick up the lepto virus, says veterinarian Louise Murray, vice president of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animal’s Bergh Animal Hospital in New York.

“The way that dogs usually get leptospirosis is from the urine of wild animals,” Murray says. “It doesn’t have to be a rat.” Among other animals that could carry one of the several strains of leptospirosis are mice, raccoons and opossums.

For example, she says, a dog might walk through a puddle of water or on grass where an infected animal has urinated, then contract the virus by licking its feet.

Dogs can pass the lepto virus to humans and humans can pass it back to dogs. A dog may even pass it along to other animals that come in contact with its urine. Cat owners needn’t worry, however. Murray says scientists have found no evidence that the virus affects cats.

If a dog is infected with lepto, symptoms appear soon afterward.

“Most will get really, really sick very quickly — like within several days,” Murray says. Soon after infection, a dog may be more thirsty than usual. Then the dog will stop drinking and eating, and may start throwing up.

Leptospirosis, which can be fatal, damages the liver and kidneys. Treatment includes antibiotics, fluids, and drugs to control problems that go along with liver and kidney infections.

Murray says all dogs — except those that never come into contact with another animal — need to receive the lepto vaccine annually. A commonly held misconception about the lepto vaccine is that dogs react negatively to it, but she says that primarily happens when the lepto shot is given along with several other vaccinations.

To prevent a reaction to the vaccine, Murray suggests dog owners ask their vets to spread out the shots over two office visits. “That’s more inconvenient for the owner but better for the dog.”

Creature Feature

6 Apr

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, 1E, April 6, 2011

BY RHONDA OWEN, Special to the Democrat-Gazette

My dog is 8 years old. Is it time to switch Rudy to a “senior” dog food? I looked at the labels on some of the them and can’t really tell how they’re different from the regular foods.

Illustration/Dusty Higgins, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

Pet food labels can be confusing, but you’re correct in your observation that there isn’t much difference, if any, between “senior” dog foods and those labeled as “adult” or “maintenance.”

The federal Food and Drug Administration Center for Veterinary Medicine (, which sets standards for all animal feed, says there are no rules or requirements that relate to pet foods labeled especially for senior dogs.

“A ‘senior diet’ must meet the requirements for adult maintenance, but no more,” the FDA says. Dogs are considered to be senior when they reach age 7, although that can go up or down depending on the size of the dog. Smaller dogs become seniors later in life than larger dogs. READ FULL COLUMN